There is simply no better fodder for inspiration than having your heart shattered into a million pieces, a point proven by artists in all mediums throughout time immemorial. And while someone like The Weeknd (or rather, Abel Tesfaye) should certainly be able to find happiness in the arms of another, it’s hard to find too much fault in his painful break-up with Selena Gomez when it happens to produce My Dear Melancholy, the singer’s most refreshing and immediate work in years.
But to be fair, that isn’t saying a whole lot. Since bursting onto the scene with not one (not even two) but three genre-pushing mixtapes – conveniently collected on the masterful Trilogy – the quality of The Weeknd’s work has faltered in tandem with his rising celebrity. His debut album proper, 2013’s Kiss Land, was solid but ultimately forgettable. His commercial breakthrough, the Grammy-winning and Academy Award-nominated Beauty Behind the Madness, was home to several massive singles and twice as much filler.
And then of course came Starboy, his biggest record to date that arrived in the tail end of 2016. It is a brutal slog of a listen; clocking in at a punishingly-long 18 tracks. Despite features from such reputable guests as Daft Punk, Kendrick Lamar and Lana Del Rey, it fails to make an impact beyond its own ultra-bloated sense of self-worth. Starboy is not without its pleasant moments, but the overwhelming sense of The Weeknd attempting to make an ‘important record’ fails to justify the highlights.
My Dear Melancholy, is an ideal follow-up, as it is the opposite of its predecessor in every way. By electing to fashion the project as a six-song EP, The Weeknd preemptively trims any of the excess fat that weighed down his previous efforts, immediately enlivening the proceedings. Where Starboy was weighed down by its own importance, My Dear Melancholy, is pious and confessional, a collection of songs that feel as if they’ve been scrawled in an old journal versus blown across a billboard.
Tastefully, The Weeknd names no names in these tell-alls, but it doesn’t take a deep dive through Genius to figure out who is on his mind. Opening track “Call Out My Name” contains the line “I almost cut a piece of myself for your life”, a lyric that (despite sources close to the couple denying this interpretation) is widely read as a reference to Gomez’ life-threatening kidney transplant, a surgery that Tesfaye cancelled a tour appearance to be present for. There are also numerous veiled throwaways to his other ex, Bella Hadid, with whom he split shortly before linking up with Gomez. “Wasted Times” mentions a lover who was “equestrian”, much like the supermodel.
To describe the EP in terms of its he-said, she-said repartee would be a disservice to its craftsmanship; My Dear Melancholy, is, first and foremost, a superlative piece of music. Behind the booth, Tesfaye has surrounded himself with an eclectic cast of producers who manage to leave their sonic fingerprints everywhere without smudging the final product. The muted, mellifluous piano that brushes feather-light through “Call Out My Name” is unmistakably Nicolas Jaar. Mike WiLL Made-It’s maximalism turns “Try Me” into the EP’s undisputed pop-highlight, while Skrillex delivers what might be some of his most subtle work to date on “Wasted Time”. “Hurt You” features a mini-Starboy reunion in the form of Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, who contributes a crisp beat reminiscent of their previous “I Feel It Coming”.
The most welcome collaboration comes in the form of Gessafelstein, who is featured on both “I Was Never There” and “Hurt You”. The former song is an outlier in the entirety of The Weeknd’s catalogue, seamlessly blending Tesfaye’s warm, reverbed vocals with the angular, industrial whine of the French producer’s best. It evokes the siren-blare he created for Kanye West’s Yeezus-cut “Send It Up”, but a version of it that has been clouded over by the thick fog of a lean high.
A great artist’s hallmark is their ability to constantly evolve their sound, continually redefining and refreshing their palette to wring new meaning. In a rare feat of musicianship, The Weeknd has wrought a shift in sound by devolving. My Dear Melancholy, is a return to the days of yore, a continuation of the morose, mysterious R&B of 2011’s House of Balloons. This EP feels like an alternate timeline where his catapult to stardom never occurred; it jettisons the last few years of his Hot 100 work and acts as a spiritual successor to the days where Tesfaye labored over Beach House samples instead of refining his second-rate Michael Jackson impersonations.
While The Weeknd’s songcraft is in top form here, cracks in the EP’s veneer appear in its lyrical content – closing track “Privilege” is a particularly eye-roll-inducing affair. But it is ultimately to Tesfaye’s credit that the sense of sheer despondency which courses through each second of his vocals is capable of selling less than stellar moments of wordplay. As fans have been quick to point out, My Dear Melancholy, has already earned a place in the pantheon of ‘music to cry in the shower to,’ but fortunately for The Weeknd, it is a much-needed reminder of his well-honed talent.
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